Where The Wild Things Are
Hayley Hudnall, Austin Wildlife Rescue’s executive director, with a 1-month-old raccoon after feeding time.

Hayley Hudnall, Austin Wildlife Rescue’s executive director, with a 1-month-old raccoon after feeding time.

Story by Denise Gamino
Photos by Sarah Beal

Less than two weeks after an area-wide wildlife rehabilitation center opened a new state-of-the-art headquarters in Bastrop County, someone brought in a majestic symbol of America: a bald eagle. It was injured and underweight.

X-rays taken at the spacious Austin Wildlife Rescue facility outside Elgin in April showed a BB pellet lodged in the eagle’s right wing. Veterinarian Susan Skyler’s exam found the adult male eagle was suffering from parasites and mites. Its wing wound was old and minor, but shooting a bald eagle is a federal offense punishable by up to $250,000 in fines or two years in prison.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Derek Rennspies, the Milam County game warden who rescued the eagle from a creek bed near the small town of Buckholts after a landowner found it. “The (BB) wound was so old, there were really no leads to go on. Bald eagles travel so much, there was really no way to tell where that eagle came from.”

The game warden is just one of thousands of public workers and private citizens who contact Austin Wildlife Rescue for help in saving injured, ill or orphaned animals. The nonprofit runs a widespread operation that expects to aid 6,600 animals this year — an average of 18 a day — at its new Bastrop County headquarters. (Austin Wildlife Rescue has turned its former animal rehab center in east Austin into its main animal intake center. Every evening, volunteers drive that day’s newly arrived animals to the far roomier Bastrop County rehab center.)

Austin Wildlife Rescue is not a 24-hour operation. But “they are always willing to come out and meet me when I’m in a bind,” the game warden said. “Every time I call them, they help me.”

Austin Wildlife Rescue helps wild creatures great and small — from bobcats and deer to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them hummingbirds, baby turtles no bigger than silver dollars, newborn squirrels that haven’t opened their eyes, wounded beavers, and even the occasional porcupine or skunk. “You never know what’s coming in,” said Hayley Hudnall, the organization’s executive director.

Austin Wildlife Rescue is the oldest and largest wild animal rehabilitation center in the booming Austin region. It began in 1977 as a shoestring volunteer hotline. Now it has spread its own wings after 15 years of saving money in a building fund. It had outgrown its center in a former three-bedroom house in east Austin. So in 2014, it used donations to buy 6.7 acres about 14 miles south of Elgin to build a large, modern rehabilitation facility.

“It’s a dream we’ve had for so long,” Hudnall said.  

The new, $655,000 center has a 7,200-square-foot main building, half of which is temperature-controlled with central air and heat. Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative provides the electricity. For the first time, the center has a surgery suite for volunteer veterinarians, a food preparation area, a quarantine space for contagious animals and individual rooms for each type of animal. Outdoors are a tall, 100-foot raptor flight cage, roomy deer pens, and cages for small mammals like opossums, foxes and skunks. Foundation grants helped pay for cages.

The mission of the wildlife center is rescue, rehabilitate and release. Volunteers recall the day a few years ago when a Ford pickup collided with a low-flying red-tailed hawk and the raptor got stuck in the truck’s grille. The driver immediately diverted to Austin Wildlife Rescue’s intake center in Austin with the entangled bird of prey. The wildlife staff freed the hawk and a volunteer veterinarian set its wing. After the hawk healed, it was released to the open skies.

On any given day, the animals at the rehab center may include a fawn covered in fire ant bites, a toad stuck in a sewer cover hole or a snake that swallowed a golf ball. Even local animal control workers stop by to drop off injured wild animals such as raccoons. Those workers alone bring in 500 to 600 wild animals a year.

The public can bring injured wild animals to the new Bastrop County facility even though Austin Wildlife Rescue’s main animal intake center remains in Austin. Both locations are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week.

“I don’t ever want to be a center that turns animals away simply because we’re full,” Hudnall said. “We’ll never turn them away. Where would they have gone if we didn’t take them?”

Hudnall, who earned a master’s degree in wildlife ecology from Texas State University, spends part of her time educating the public about why wild animals are worth saving. “We try to tell people cool facts and reasons why it’s important, and how we can co-exist with them,” she said.

Wild animals “were here before we were,” she said. “We moved into their backyard, not the other way around, where they came into our house. Really, we came into theirs.”

“There are so many people who want to know, ‘Why do you need another raccoon?’ or ‘Why do you need to save another opossum?’ We start out by explaining, ‘Well, do you know how important opossums are? Opossums eat bugs, including ticks that can carry diseases. They eat snakes that could be poisonous. They eat dead things, so they’re cleaning up the environment.

“So having an opossum in your yard is never a bad thing. They have such a low body temperature, they rarely carry rabies even though most people think they can be rabid. They’ve been around since the dinosaurs, so they’re doing something right. And they’re marsupials; all their babies are in their pouch — up to 13 at one time.’”

The public also may not understand the importance of rescuing vultures. “Vultures are cleaning up the environment,” Hudnall said. “It would be pretty stinky around here, with a lot more roadkill without the vultures.”

And some people may consider squirrels to be nuisance animals that chew up patio furniture. But they are sowing trees that provide shade, food and clean air for humans. “They are good tree planters,” Hudnall said. “All the pecans, all the acorns—they are not going back to all the nuts they buried, so they are planting all those trees for us.”

Once animals are healthy, wildlife rescue workers release them back to the wild, but not on the property near Elgin. The animals are released on private property with permission from the landowner. The organization has about 50 release sites far outside city limits on land that is at least 100 acres and has a water source that never runs dry. Deer require a release site of 1,000 acres. Release sites are rotated and never used more than once a year. Volunteers sometimes drive up to two hours to get to a release site.

The bald eagle arrived at the new Bastrop County rehab facility before the $50,000 raptor flight cage was finished. So Austin Wildlife Rescue contacted a licensed raptor rehabilitator in East Texas who brought the eagle back to health.

Once the eagle is healed, Rennspies, the Milam County game warden, will work with Austin Wildlife Rescue to release it. “The bird will be released back where I found it,’’ Rennspies said.

“We protect the natural resources,” he said. “We want our future generations to enjoy the same natural resources that the past and current generations have enjoyed.”


PHONE: 512-472-9453 (rescue hotline and inquiries)

HOURS: Every day, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., both locations

MAIN ANIMAL INTAKE CENTER: 5401 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Austin, TX 78721

NEW REHABILITATION CENTER: 111 Elbow Bend Elgin, TX 78621

MAILING ADDRESS: P.O. Box 302695 Austin, TX 78703

WEBSITE: austinwildliferescue.org